Person First Language: A practical guide

The Importance of Person First Language

Words are powerful. They shape the way things or people are viewed. It’s important to think about how we phrase things when talking about disabilities or those with disabilities. Person first language is a respectful way to put the focus on the person and not the disability.

People with disabilities are just that – people, plain and simple. They are men, women and children. They have diverse interests, jobs, hobbies, families and roles within their communities. Each person is unique and has his or her own set of talents and abilities. A disability does not define WHO they are, but rather, is one aspect of a person – and possibly the smallest aspect of who they really are.

When a person with a disability is defined first and foremost by their disability, it can create powerful, negative stereotypes, or even barriers. That’s why it’s important to remember that a disability is not an identity.  So how can we use person first language in our daily lives?

What is Person First Language?

Person first language puts the person first. Person first language is a respectful way of talking or writing about people with disabilities. Person first language is objective and conveys that the person is the focus.

For example:

Correct: My son’s best friend, Andrew, has Autism.
Incorrect: My son’s best friend, Andrew, is Autistic.

Correct: Ms. Smith uses a wheelchair.
Incorrect: Ms. Smith is confined to a wheelchair.

Correct: I am an advocate for people with disabilities.
Incorrect: I am an advocate for the disabled.

Person First Language in the Media

From time to time there are news stories in the media regarding people with disabilities. While public awareness and support for adults and children with disabilities has increased, it is important to point out the need for accurate and respectful portrayals of those with disabilities.

  • Do show positive view of a person with a disability
  • Do focus on their strengths and abilities
  • Do talk about involvement with friends, family or the community as it relates to the article/story
  • Always use person first language
  • Don’t underestimate a person and focus solely on their disability
  • Don’t portray people as victims, helpless or other negative stereotypes
  • Don’t frame them as people to be pitied, feared or ignored
  • Avoid adjectives about a disability that will label the person – a person has a disability, they aren’t a disability

By choosing the right words to talk about disabilities and those who have disabilities, we can change attitudes and beliefs and most importantly, put the emphasis back on the person rather than their disability.

Discover all kinds of stories about people with disabilities that will change your view of abilities.

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